Social Action Discourse

On this page members of the Social Action Team and others will contribute their thoughts on social action issues from time to time.

Missourians Against the Death Penalty

By Wiley Miller

Introduction to Faith-to-Action Offering – Nov. 4, 2018

Let us start with a few fundamentals.  What do we value?  As Unitarian Universalists, we value several primary undergirding concepts and among those exists the idea that we respect and esteem “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  From our own congregational statements of mission and vision, we have concluded that we seek to work together to help “heal” the world – not to break it further.  Moreover, we seek to engage in compassionate action in response to injustices – not bitter, angry, and often impulsive retribution resulting in even more injustice, pain, and suffering.  For me, and I hope for each of us, these values mean that we place a very high premium on conscious, independent, self-sustaining human life and that we do all that we can to honor, support, defend, and preserve such life.  The taking of a human life – indeed the intentional taking of a life – is undoubtedly one of the worse acts that can take place on this earth, and we owe it to ourselves, to all whom we love, and to the entire world to do everything reasonably within our power to keep that outcome from ever taking place.  However, these values also mean that we never further compound that atrocity by taking the life of one who has taken one or more lives of others.  That is one of the great heights of hypocrisy.

At Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP), we firmly believe that the death penalty, and the carrying out of the death penalty, are morally wrong and are psychosocially and economically destructive.  There is nothing good about death penalty laws or the acts resulting from those laws.  Therefore, at MADP, we work hard each day in opposition to the death penalty in the state of Missouri.  Obviously, our goal is to repeal the death penalty laws within this state.  However, given the nature and beliefs of those who currently make up and control much of our state government, repeal remains a heavy lift and achieving it is going to take some time.  Meanwhile, we have learned that there is much we can do to reduce the terribly destructive effects of the death penalty even without accomplishing repeal.  Therefore, we are continually working towards the realization of those more minor objectives that allow us to diminish the death penalty.

Time will not allow me to give you a complete summary of our work, but I do wish to share with you two examples of that work.  The first example is that we attempt to reason with prosecuting attorneys across the state preemptively.  We try to get them to see the significant disadvantages of pursuing death penalties in cases that they might have to prosecute.  It appears that many prosecuting attorneys listen to us and give consideration to our message because we have seen a definite decline in the number of cases in which the death penalty is sought.  However, in the case of the St. Louis County prosecutor, he wanted nothing to do with our thoughts or views on the death penalty.  As the prosecutor responsible for placing more people on death row than any other single prosecutor in our state, he fully planned to continue his drive to seek the death penalty in as many instances as possible.  MADP dealt with that prosecutor by joining with several other progressive organizations that together successfully worked to politically defeat that prosecutor in the primary election held in August of this year.  The newly elected prosecutor will be far less likely to pursue the death penalty.

The second example is that we are working to eliminate the practice of what is known as “Judicial Overrides.”  A few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that in capital cases a death sentence has to be imposed by a jury – not simply a judge.  Also, in most states, jury decisions have to be unanimous.  If a jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, we have a hung jury. The legal process ends, and the prosecutor must decide whether to retry the case with an entirely new jury.  However, in Missouri, when there is a hung jury on a death penalty sentence, the judge can step in (the Override) and impose a sentence from the bench. Last year, this “Override” in capital cases occurred twice in Missouri, and a judge imposed a death sentence in each case even though the juries had not been able to agree on a death sentence.  In one case, the 12 person jury voted 11-to-1 for a “life without parole” sentence rather than the death penalty.  Nevertheless, the judge imposed death.  At MADP, we believe that such judicial impositions are arbitrary and capricious, and we want to see them stopped.  Thus, when the next state legislature opens its session in January 2019, a bill designed to end this practice of Judicial Overrides will be introduced.  Getting the bill passed will be difficult, but we will be giving it our best effort.

Again, these are only two examples of the work we are doing and the results we are achieving.  MADP wants you to know that we are so deeply appreciative of your moral and financial support of our work. We promise that with your help, we will continue our persistent efforts to achieve the goals representative of the deep values that we share.